Monday 27 August 2007

Why a coat hanger as pro-choice meme?

They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. It appears that Manhattan Mini-Storage, long known for its edgy advertising strategies, has decided that it’s time for the coat hanger meme to come out of the closet, so to speak.

Many young pro-choice supporters are unfamiliar with this symbol, and why it was chosen to eloquently express the commitment to refuse to be pushed back to those awful days. Veterans of the pro-choice struggles know at least one family who lost a daughter, a sister or a mother to a self-induced or an illegal abortion. In this post, mention is made of other illicit methods used in the past, to precipitate a miscarriage. However, the coat hanger technique is the one that resonates the most, when held up as a powerful symbol of this dark and shameful era of women’s history. Here is one account. There are others too.

O.G., a neighbour that I befriended back in the seventies recounted an incident that occurred right after she just graduated from nursing school, in 1971. O. was working a night shift in the ER of an urban hospital in Alberta. A man in his forties brought his wife for medical attention. She was delirious, weak, and gasping for breath. As O. installed her in a bed, the women moaned loudly with pain. O. recorded her vital signs, which were not good - dangerously low blood pressure. The smell of fresh blood as well as the distinctive odour of a septic infection grew stronger as O. removed her patient’s underclothing.

When the doctor stepped into the cubicle he looked at the patient, sighed, examined her and probed her abdomen as gently as possible. “A burst appendix?” asked O., quietly. The doctor shook his head, ordered an IV, saline solution, oxygen and prescribed antibiotics to be administered immediately. He and O. swiftly attended to her medical needs in heavy silence. Then he asked O. to direct him to the patient’s husband and told her that she needed to decontaminate immediately, as some of the patient’s fluids has splattered her.

A senior RN debriefed O. after she had removed her uniform, all other clothing and her shoes, thrust them into a garbage bag and put them in a specific hazardous waste bin. Freshly scrubbed after a vigorous shower and dressed in borrowed scrubs, O. was informed by a colleague that her patient had died. Although the cause would not appear on the death certificate, the doctor had confirmed that her symptoms were consistent with septic shock due to peritonitis, brought on by a perforated uterus.

O. was aghast. “Why had this woman waited so long to get medical treatment?” she asked. “She must have known, from the bleeding, the swelling and the pain, that she was dangerously ill.” “She was probably afraid that the doctor would recognize that her miscarriage was self-inflicted and that the hospital would report her to the police”, the older nurse said. “She hoped that she would heal on her own. She wasn’t aware that she was developing a deadly staphylococcus infection.”

“Does her husband know?” asked O. The older nurse shrugged, “He now has five orphaned children under the age of 10. Will telling him that his wife probably used a knitting needle or a coat hanger to abort her pregnancy help him cope better? Officially and medically, it’s a case of advanced peritonitis that did not respond to treatment. There won’t be an autopsy.” Then she looked directly at O. and told her, “Remember this patient. Her life shouldn’t end like this.”

After O. finished her recollection we sat in silence, in her cozy suburban family room, watching our toddlers - my daughter and her son, play with colourful and educational toys. Finally I asked her, “What did you do?” O. answered, “I kept working as a nurse until I got married and became pregnant with this little guy. And I did - still do - volunteer work for Planned Parenthood. Necessity is the mother of prevention. No woman deserves to die that way.”

More information about the history of abortion rights in Canada can be found here.

Originally posted at Birth Pangs.

1 comment:

Kev said...

and that is why we can never take a step back

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